Thursday, July 13, 2023

Album Review: Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit - Weathervanes

Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit
**** out of *****

The newest collection of stout songs from Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit, titled Weathervanes, is yet another example of top notch song writing in a discography full of them; every release since Southeastern has been must hear and excellent. 

While it is clearly a band album, Isbell has truly started coming more into his own with enhanced self confidence. He self produced the record (with some help from Matt Pence), designed the cover art (whose weathervane only points south and east) and wrote all of the songs with his unique take on small town life standing in for larger societal problems. 

The album is fairly split between softer Americana/country/folk efforts and full band, southern rockers. The 400 Unit is Derry deBorja - Acoustic Piano, Electric Piano, Organ, Accordion, Synthesizers, Therevox, Tack Piano, Background Vocals Chad Gamble - Drums, Percussion, Congas Jimbo Hart - Electric Bass, Bass Ukulele Sadler Vaden - Electric Guitar, Acoustic Guitar, Electric 12 String, Acoustic 12 String, Background Vocals. His wife Amanda Shires supports as well on fiddle and backing vocals and other guests help out along the way. While the core songs remain Americana/Southern rock, there are flashes of new avenues musically that Isbell is toying with to keep things fresh. 

Opener "Death Wish" goes in a slightly new musical direction, with touches of new wave and angular percussion as the track oddly gets a dance beat roiling around swelling strings (provide by by Morgan O’Shaughnessey) as Isbell sings with an extra touch of anger, amping the distressing feeling immensely. A song like "King of Oklahoma" feels as if Isbell could have written it in his sleep, as down on their luck addicts fight their demons to regain a sense of humanity through righteous memories, killer guitar solos, and ensnaring turns of phrases; whether they are walking in homemade house shoes or stealing copper pipes.     

Highways and wounded cowboys arrive in "Strawberry Woman", as does Mickey Raphael's harmonica while "Middle of the Morning" has a laid back Allman's Brothers vibe coursing throughout the pandemic influenced track. The acoustic shuffling of "If You Insist" ramps up the twang to deal with isolation and loneliness while a trio of easy swaying numbers, "White Beretta", "Vestavia Hills", and "Volunteer" (with great supporting vocals from Shires) are so confident in their tales of broken dreams that contain slim slivers of hope, that it feels Isbell could literally churn these top notch efforts out forever. 

Never afraid of diving into tough subjects, gun violence is addressed directly and confidently on "Save The World" which brings in an early 80's Dire Straits sound (along with digital bleeps and electro keys) to the tale of helplessness one feels when another mass shooting tops the news; a powerful song. "Cast Iron Skillet" turns a mirror onto Southern charms that aren't very charming at all while the hard stomping "When We Were Close" painfully deals with substances abuse in the arts around the best guitar solo on the record.     

The album ends with two elongated tunes that really shine the spotlight on the band interplay as "This Ain't It" was recorded live and has a vibrant feeling as the 400 Unit uses a big rock sound with congas in a Rolling Stones like way winningly. Closer "Miles" feels like two songs in one and is a bit clunky, however, the opening playing/verses remind of a polished version of Neil Young and Crazy Horse before a big climax changes the tone as Isbell discusses modern issues of displaced rage and capitalisms faults. Perhaps breaking this into two songs may have been a better move, but the ambitious track certainly stands out on this record.   

Overall, while other Isbell albums have had higher pinnacles and must hear songs, the solid nature of every song here speaks volumes to the groups talents as the 400 Unit deliver and Isbell continues to craft mini movies with his specifically affecting songwriting throughout Weathervanes
Support the artist, buy the album and peep some video below:

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